Thursday, March 3, 2011

An overview on Sun Tzu's Art of War

(The Art of War by Sun Tzu) All military leaders around the world would have at least read once in their lifetime “The Art of War” by Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu.

Written in the late sixth century BC, the book continues to be read today by soldiers, generals and academicians interested in the art of war.

It is perhaps the most successful of China’s seven military classics. The other six, according to some war experts, are Taigong’s Six Secret Teachings, Three Strategies of Huang Shigong, Wei Liaozi, Wu Qi’s Wuzi, Sima Rangju Art of War and Questions and Answers between Tang Taizong and Li Weigong.

There is an often told tale about how Sun Tzu proved to the Chinese Emperor that military strategy must be accompanied by an unshakeable mental commitment.

One day Sun Tzu asked the emperor for permission to turn part of his retinue of concubines into soldiers. The emperor had a good laugh but allowed Sun Tzu to prove his point.

Included in the group of concubines for the little experiment was the emperor’s favourite concubine. Sun Tzu got down to serious training at first light.

He instructed the concubines to form straight lines and march according to orders. Naturally, being ladies of the royal court, there was much laughter and giggling.

After the initial fiasco, Sun Tzu issued a dire warning. The first person caught taking the entire exercise lightly will be executed. The same result ensued.

This time, Sun Tzu singled out the emperor’s favourite concubine for punishment. He ordered her immediate execution despite the emperor’s objection.

When Sun Tzu explained that the emperor himself had given him full permission to do whatever he could in any eventuality, the execution was carried out.

The next day, marching by the remaining concubines was carried out without a hitch. This is perhaps the first important principle in The Art of War.

Fundamental principles

To achieve victory, all matters relating to battle must be taken seriously. Any disobedience will not be condoned.

There are 13 chapters in Sun Tzu’s magnum opus. Briefly, the 13 chapters are Preparations or Calculations, Waging War, Plan of Attack, Tactical Moves, Energy or Control, Identifying weaknesses, Engaging the Enemy, Moving the Troops, Tactical Positioning, The Nine Situations, Attack by Fire and the Use of Intelligence.

Some of Sun Tzu’s strategies are no longer relevant in modern times because the weapons of war have changed dramatically. However, the fundamental principles are still applicable in any theatre of conflict.

These include using of spies, knowing the kinks in the enemy’s armour and movement of army and thorough preparations.

In China’s recorded history of thousands of years, warfare had been waged, won and lost repeatedly. But the art of war and how its strategies had been employed to deadly effect were seen during the era of the Warring States which took place between the Third and Fourth Centuries.

Students of Chinese literature know that strategies of The Art of War were best demonstrated in the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin.

One of the most memorable quotes from The Art of War is in Chapter Three where it is said that to know your opponent thoroughly, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles.

Although there have been some academic debate over whether Sun Tzu was the actual author of The Art of War, there is universal agreement that the art of war strategies is definitely worth learning and remembering.

Compulsory reading

It is safe to assume that throughout history, leaders from across the globe have taken to heart the text in The Art of War. Among these national leaders were Napoleon Bonaparte, General Douglas McArthur, Mao Tse-tung and Vietnamese general Nguyen Van Giap.

Even though Sun Tzu’s Art of War has differing scenarios to Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, the underlying theme is similar.

Both books hammer home the principle that for victory to be a reality, certain fundamentals cannot be ignored.

The Art of War only found its way to Europe in 1772 when a French Jesuit named Jean Joseph Marie Amiot translated it into his native language. Then in 1905, British military officer Everard Ferguson Calthrop brought it to England when he translated it into English.

Since then, Sun Tzu has become one of the world’s most well-known military strategists. Whether or not, the1,500-year-old The Art of War, if studied in earnest, will boost an army’s chances of achieving victory in the 21st century is debatable.

But it is undeniable that for any aspiring military leader to ignore this treatise is to reduce his chances of victory in the battlefield.

To accentuate the significance of Sun Tzu’s contribution in the field of ancient Chinese warfare, this volume was made compulsory reading among top military brass during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The understanding of The Art of War will be incomplete if the study of other Chinese literary and military classics is excluded.

Thus to fully appreciate Sun Tzu’s work, it is also essential that there is a thorough awareness of past circumstances that influenced the creation of this ancient text.

[The blogger is also a trainer in the above topic, highlighting how Sun Tzu's strategies can be applied in Sales and Marketing]

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